“All them eager actors gladly taking credit/For the lines created by the people tucked away from sight” – “Blame It On The Tetons” by Modest Mouse
Last Sunday, Ella Yelich-O’Connor – aka Lorde – won a Grammy for her song “Royals,” which benefited from the highly marketed fact that it was written when she was only 15.
However, you’ll notice a second name next to hers in the winners category: one Joel Little. Joel is a professional songwriter who helped “flesh out” the song that the young, admittedly talented New Zealander brought him. “It had a lot of language – all of which, with few exceptions, came from Ella’s notebook,” he explains:
“This one particular week she brought a bunch of lyrics in, and one of the lyrics was, basically, the entire lyric to ‘Royals.’ I came up with the ‘We will never be royals, royals’ idea of having her sing that, and having a choir of Lordes follow…Once we had that idea, I put a beat together pretty quickly. Then we messed around with trying to come up with a verse and a pre-chorus that fit what she was saying.”
So let’s celebrate Lorde, who has earned her acclaim with a well-written pop album, but let’s not forget about relatively-hidden people like Joel Little, who help make the pop world go round. In fact, one particular songwriter has been responsible for almost every pop hit from 1998 until today, but 99.99% of people will never know he existed.
His name is Max Martin.
The 42-year old Swede, born Karl Martin Sandberg, got hooked up with artists like Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and N’Sync when they were just getting going, and after writing/co-writing a murders’ row of singles including “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time,”* he became just as in-demand as the stars themselves.
He’s written/co-written every Katy Perry song you can think of, that one Taylor Swift song that got stuck in your head forever, that other Taylor Swift song that you got stuck in your head forever, that Kelly Clarkson song that you couldn’t escape from a few years back, and even a few for people artists like Maroon 5 and Justin Bieber.
He’s won 6 ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) Songwriter of the Year awards (with a date range that goes from 1999 to 2013).
He was ranked #36 on NME’s greatest producers of all time list.
He’s had Britney Spears say this about him: “He’s like a mathematician. He knows music like math. It just makes sense to him.”
He has sold 135,433,000 singles according to Nielsen SoundScan, with more than 38 songs topping a million units.
His net worth is estimated at about $250 million dollars.
But no one outside the recording industry knows his name.
Whether you think he is a pop virtuoso or whether you think he’s the patient zero for pop music’s decline into illegitimacy, there’s no denying that he’s helped shape pop music as much or more than anyone else on the planet. And while it might seem unfair that other, less talented “musicians” get to take credit for his work, look no further than the lyrics for “Royals” and realize that at least this one time, that person “tucked away from sight” is doing just fine:
“My friends and I—we’ve cracked the code/
We count our dollars on the train to the party/
And everyone who knows us knows that we’re fine with this“
And if all this talk about 2000’s-era pop has got you feeling nostalgic, you can enjoy this Max Martin playlist on Spotify. Go ahead, we won’t tell anybody.
* Fun fact: Apparently “Hit Me Baby One More Time” was offered to TLC, who turned it down because they were “taking time off.” Think about the crazy pop culture butterfly effect that would have happened had they taken that track away from Britney?